This is a tough one. While being an easily recognizable and arguably the most beloved phenomenon and concept in jazz, it is also such a complex subject matter so that talking about it might as well be equated to defining art itself. So why do it? Because although we may not be able to put our finger on it and say “this is it”, we can certainly “compare notes”. so to speak, and find out what are some of its commonly experienced characteristics, thereby bringing about more insight and awareness on the matter. And as I’ll expand upon later, bringing awareness is most likely the single most powerful tool a musician can have in his/her arsenal in gaining more practical(i.e., on-stage) control of swing/groove.
A short list, in broad strokes, of what we probably agree on, as to what are some of swing’s properties;
As a concept as a whole, it’s an abstract one. We can list till sun down, the musical properties, such as different degrees of tension created by different combinations of bassists & drummers, and where their beat-pulse centers are, and so on. To which, I just say, John Coltrane quartet or Sonny Rollins or any of the “big-beat” masters, whose beat-centers can vary dramatically and can be described as fluid or flexible.
And when it comes to “why” certain combinations trigger the “feeling” of swing, we may as well expect a different answer per individual. That’s why it’s music and not chemical engineering. But just as in chemical engineering, we know certain combinations do indeed trigger those emotional responses i.e., have been proven to work, and we’ve learned to accept those and be happy with them, when they’re relevant and applicable.
But in truth and in the grand scheme of things, and for the sake of jazz music and its continued growth as an art form, the correct assessment would be that, our experiences of 'swing' are essentially empirical and we don’t really have substantial enough of an intellectual grasp over them to be able to define as to the what, how and why.
And interestingly enough, this exact same phenomenon’s been occurring in many fields of science. We used to ask the ‘why’ of things as kids. Well, many of our greatest scientists never stopped, some of whom were lucky enough to have found a hidden meaning or two in the universe. But it seems in the end, we all arrive at the same brick wall of Truly. Not. Knowing. (Yup, truth can be a real downer in certain sense, with seemingly no end as to its depth. And It takes a certain type of personality to enjoy being in bewilderment and mystery without resolution. Ah.. those crappy endings… Why do they keep making them?)
In action, however, it’s a different story. And it’s as simple as riding a seesaw or rope swing, which also used to result in matching feelings when we were children. For most, seesaw or rope swing gives out pretty quickly in terms of the dynamic scope of interest they can offer. Still, it’s amusing to notice that we’re after the same feeling, only by different means. Simple is not the same as easy however, and this is where the element of skill comes in.
When a player’s skills get up to a certain threshold level, the point of which one can feel his/her own internal pulse strongly enough, keeping steady tempo starts to feel automatic. From this point and on, swing(or groove) is like gravity and happens automatically. What goes up must come down. Picture the seesaw or rope swing. (And we still don’t know what and why gravity is by the way, only its various effects and characteristics. The same point I was making regarding swing earlier.)
But first, we can talk about when it does not take place. And before going on any further, I need to make clear that in this article, in regards to swing/groove, I’ll only be addressing the collective aspects of the phenomenon that happens within the ensemble format, in between players, and with the audience, but will NOT be covering those within the spectrum of an individual instrument/instrumentalist/solo performance.
The most obvious example of failure in achieving swing would be when the beat gets turned around. Rather than disputing who turned it around, it would be a much more constructive, professional and mature attitude to take to consider why and how it got turned around. Also, there’s that common and wise saying in jazz, ‘when in doubt, lay out’, which is one alternative. The beat gets turned around because one or more of the members are;
The last dysfunctional example I’ll mention that is common, and the most subtle one I can think of at the moment, is when a player ‘listens’ and then ‘reacts’. Although this kind of reaction works greatly in call-and-response situations, it is too slow a method in creating groove. When considering for the sake of groove only, it would actually be better if one didn’t ‘listen’. Not this way anyway. Groove control, which is what this gesture often seems to represent, requires a ‘listening’ of different sort. Perhaps it can be considered similar to the difference between ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’, where ‘listening’ could be thought of as being analytical and cerebral, as opposed to ‘hearing’, which would be more visceral and instinctual. (More on this later.)
Other than these kinds of unfortunate and tragic examples, swing is easy. It is fun and automatic. (Again, for those who have developed enough sensitivity to the internal pulse.) But as the word, ‘automatic’ suggests, it is still, more often than not, an unintended or semi-conscious phenomenon. It’s a happy accident. I.e., even when and after one has taken the first step of developing a fairly strong sense of one's own internal pulse, it’s significant enough a possibility and common that the collective groove remains low in one’s priorities and stays in the background of his/her attention for indefinite amount of time, unless further, direct and conscious effort is made in developing one’s sensitivity to, and/or control of, the phenomenon of swing itself. And for that latter event to take place, there needs to exist higher level of appreciation and awareness for it in the player first.
Idealistically, the collective groove would stay right up at the forefront of one’s awareness along with all other internal and external musical ideas simultaneously and continuously DURING performance. In this sense, true masterful jazz performance is very much a juggling act(another gravity-centered activity) that requires both the mastery of one’s instrument and also, either a deep level of 'equanimity' or extraordinarily heightened awareness. And this would be a good spot to discuss the differences in individual practice methods and styles in relation to, and resulting in, what different types of swing.
Two styles and a metronome;
Ultimately over time, either method/style should naturally lead to some form of a heightened awareness that is key to swing. But the truth is none of us are strictly one style and none of the other. Nevertheless it would serve one well to be aware of the existence of such polarities in rhythmic styles, both in oneself and others. While it’d be nice, and almost professionally mandatory for the modern jazz musician, to develop some level of fluency in both, one cannot serve two masters forever. Or it’d be very hard. One can miss the proverbial train, signifying depth of groove and raised awareness. It’s important to remember to keep the goal the goal.
The previously mentioned dysfunctional example, where one ‘listens’ and ‘reacts’ to another member, seems to occur often when there are stylistic differences where a player is trying to cope with and understand another’s style. Well, perhaps understanding, or reviewing from time to time, these polarities and the wide variety of styles they create, can help ease the friction or confusion from one’s mind. And of course this is assuming the other player can also play. But aside from the case in which exists a truly irreconcilable gap in levels, the bandstand is generally not the place to be making mental judgements of fellow members. Either get off it or just play.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that… feeling. The word alone is enough to turn away hearts & minds, far far away. This is the result of never looking into oneself to see the difference between having and utilizing emotions vs. losing control of them and also the self in the process. It is a challenge that will inevitably take repeated failures. But it is also the most important currency with which we can truly communicate with one another. And thus, the level of emotional control is a supremely accurate compass we can personally measure our growth with. Control is never the same as denial however and one should have total clarity, as well as honesty, on this.
So. The “feeling” of swing or groove is NOT just a technical phenomenon caused involuntarily as a result of applying certain styles or amount of the musicians’ rhythmic discipline but also a currency that musicians use to communicate their emotions to one another and furthermore, to the audience. And this “telling a story” or “talking to the audience” piece, as prescribed by Art Blakey and other masters of jazz, is an especially pronounced, and arguably the most essential, element in jazz. It is the act of consciously engaging and creating a “groove” with the audience and not just the ensemble. E.g., Miles Davis spoke of refusing and not being able to play a single note for a dictator in South Africa.
Duke Ellington famously said “Jazz is a four-letter word”. It’s an absolutely beautiful teaching aimed at integration, harmony, and pure appreciation of the great art form that is jazz. Yet, it’s also one that often gets misused in justification of ignorance/incompetence and ultimately gets lost in meaning due to the absence of proper context and distinctions therein. It is near tragic, and also a sign of the times and natural process of all things’ rise and fall, that these important discernments that were once understood without the use of so many words, seem to have waned greatly.
On a personal note, I’ve become more acutely interested in the spiritual aspect of things in the recent years. Jazz, while continuing to be a source of joy and entertainment, have taken a backseat. It does not mean my passion for higher attainment in it has wavered. It does mean that I have given up the burden of meeting various social demands of being a “professional” and subsequently, the pertaining “rights”, such as performing for the monetary gain. When it comes to performing, I do it solely for personal recreation, and as a spiritual experiment and exercise(the alcohol piece remaining to be resolved one way or another in a distant future). So my behavior and general points of discussion on the topic also tend to reflect that; I enjoy the conceptual nearly as much as the experiential aspects of the art. And the owner/manager aspect of things at cafe52 is partly an attempt at creating an environment that remembers and honors the higher philosophies in jazz while also maintaining the fun for all jazz enthusiasts. It is an impossible challenge, the external outcome of which seems almost given. And the bar itself is an ongoing work-in-progress. But it’s the process, as they say- the fruits of which I only expect to receive internally, in non-material terms. While traumatic downturns have proven to be effective in awakening people to their true identities, I still like to believe in the gentle and gradual process of awakening via positive environments, one I seek to provide at the establishment(- the environment, not the awakening. Just to be clear). But yes, it’s only a preference, and not the truth of course.